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Perpetrate My Fist! Women's Self-Defense as Physical Education for Everyday Life

Self-defense education helps women demystify myths about sexual violence and to act against violence.
Carrie Rentschler

Bad Subjects, Issue #21, October 1995

Some men tell us we must be patient and persuasive; that we must be womanly. My friends, what is a man's idea of womanliness? Is it to have a manner which pleases him — quiet, deferential, submissive, approaching him as a subject does a master. He wants no self-assertion on our part, no defiance, no vehement arraignment of him as a robber and a criminal ... while every right achieved by the oppressed has been wrung from tyrants by force; while the darkest page on human history is the outrages on women — shall men tell us to be patient, persuasive, womanly?
— Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1870.

Marie was awakened one night to the sound of scratching. Thinking it was her cat, she tried to ignore the noise, but the scratching continued. Marie got up to see what all the commotion was. She entered her living room to find a man struggling to get into her window — he was stuck at the waist. The scratching was the sound of the window sticking. Freezing in fear, she stopped and let out a scream. The man had a knife, and, jabbing at her, told her to shut up. Marie grabbed a potted plant by the window and smashed it on the man's head. She became a madwoman, grabbing everything in sight and hitting him with it. Despite her yelling, no one came to help her. Eventually the man freed himself from the window and ran away, with Marie screaming after him, "You motherfucker, don't you ever come to my place again!!"

This is a true story. Violence against women is an everyday reality. Its possibility casts a shadow over many women's movements in public and their safety in private. Violence against women is a systemic problem — its perpetration goes hand in hand with patriarchal, classist and racist structures of power. The structures of society — including family structure, sexual relations, and the valuation of men's and women's labor — help reproduce sexual violence as an everyday threat, and an everyday possibility. This possibility of assault terrorizes women, to the point where many feel unable to walk alone at night, ride a bus alone, or even to wear certain clothing. One answer to this threat is women's self-defense. Women can either acquiesce to the continuous threat of violence or fight back like Marie did. A physical threat demands a physical response.

Women's self-defense offers possibilities for both reacting to and preventing violent situations. It gives women physical and critical tools to respond to this state of violence. I have taught self-defense for two years in Champaign-Urbana, IL. Champaign-Urbana is home to the University of Illinois, also known as the date rape capital of U.S. universities. This campus' proclivity towards violence has to do with its large Greek population (40% of undergraduates belong to a fraternity or sorority — the largest Greek population in the nation) and a general climate of tension, including political, sexual, intellectual and racial tensions. Most date rape cases at the U of I are reported in relation to Greek houses or dormitories — both places where many people live in close proximity, and where the reproduction of patriarchal social relations is most concretely realized. On top of this, the campus is geographically large and spread out — many students have to walk home from libraries and computer labs; campus staff and faculty must walk across campus to catch buses and get to parking lots. Teaching self-defense in this context brings a certain urgency to our task. Violence isn't only a problem on campus — rather, sexual violence within the University community intensifies the already existing problem of sexual violence in Champaign-Urbana.

Yet, focusing solely on a particular community's violence tends to overshadow the pervasiveness of sexual violence across social categories. Sexual violence cuts across all categories, including class, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. In other words, every woman becomes a "potential target." Institutionalized structures of power pervade all parts of our lives, from enforcement of laws, divisions of labor, familial sexual and labor relations, even student-teacher relations. We come to understand violence through everyday experiences, and the relationships we have with people around us.

Unfortunately, women cannot trust our legal and judicial institutions, not even the institution of the family, to adequately respond to violence, if they respond at all. Self-defense responds to institutional "neglect" of sexual violence by giving women day-to-day fighting skills for taking care of violence on a personal level.

Self-defense education addresses the pervasiveness of sexual violence in at least two ways: through awareness and fighting back. The first step in defending yourself is becoming aware of your surroundings, both physically and politically. One of the first things we teach is how to present yourself as a "hard target" — making yourself appear confident and aware, in spite of how you actually may be feeling. We signify confidence in several ways, such as looking straight ahead rather than at the ground, standing up straight rather than letting your body collapse in on itself, and walking with purpose. Confidence means you project yourself out to people. It is similar to giving a speech or performing in a play while your knees are knocking and your palms are sweaty. You look confident, yet you may feel everything but confident. Making yourself look confident often makes you more aware of the space you inhabit, and the people inhabiting it with you.

Being politically aware of sexual violence means taking a critical look at the responses to such violence. We are constantly presented with images and narratives of sexual violence that portray women as passive victims. Rarely are we presented with images of women fighting back. The threat of sexual violence has created a climate of fear. Even my highly-educated women friends, whom you would expect to be critical of popular representations of sexual violence, question women's ability to fight back in assault situations. These women know what violence is, and they are aware of its systemic nature. Despite their understandings of violence's pervasiveness, they refuse to believe that self-defense offers a way to respond to violence, physically and politically. Many women still don't believe they have options in dealing with violence. To the contrary, it is every woman's responsibility to take a feminist self-defense class — one which specifically addresses violence perpetrated against women. If women refuse to take care of violence on the personal level at which it's perpetrated, who will? No one.

Teaching and learning self-defense is political because it challenges the ways we perceive women responding to violence. Women need to take action for themselves. According to Debbie Leung, self-defense instructor, writer and activist, police respond to only 1/2 of the calls they receive regarding domestic violence. In addition, court cases against rapists and domestic violence perpetrators often put the survivor, rather than the attacker, on trial, analyzing her behaviors, dress, occupation (especially if she works in the sex industry or certain service industries), and fidelity. Social responses compound the lack of institutional response. A survivor's friends and family may not even believe she's been assaulted, especially when the assailant is an acquaintance, friend, lover or family member.

Becoming aware of sexual violence and its socio-political context is only the first step to defending oneself. Women need physical techniques to stop physical attacks. Fighting back depends upon women's ability to act for themselves. Fighting techniques can range from yelling, running from an attacker, striking vulnerable body parts (e.g., knees, throat, eyes, nose), to crippling an attacker. Again, resorting to more individualized responses to systemic violence may seem counter-productive, but this is not the case. According to Brooklyn Women's Anti-Violence Education Center, eighty percent of women who yelled and ran from an attacker were able to get away without physical harm. Sixty percent who either yelled or ran got away. These are examples of women, acting by themselves, warding off attackers.

The key to fighting back lies in the transformation of fear into anger into power. To move from fear to anger, women have to believe that they are worth defending. When you realize that you have worth, an attack on your person becomes unacceptable. In attack situations, a defender's first impulse may be to freeze up — this is a normal, but crippling reaction to fear. Becoming angry allows a defender to relax and use adrenaline to demand that an attack stop and to follow-up with physical strikes. Most women shy away from yelling and using their full power at the beginning of our self-defense courses. They tend to keep their power inside, almost as if their strength is something to hide or keep secret. These students look surprised when they yell "No!" and hit a padded target with exceptional force, throwing the pad holder backwards by a foot (padded targets are foam-filled rectangular devices that you can hit without getting hurt). Self-defense as physical education means developing the strength that comes from combining physical techniques. We educate women to do whatever is necessary to get away from an attacker, while insuring that the attacker cannot continue the attack.

Combining verbal and physical techniques increases women's strength. In an attack situation, using your voice transforms fear into anger into power by pushing energy out at an attacker, just as hitting a padded target and yelling will be much more powerful than if you just hit the target. When we discuss using your voice in our self-defense classes, I always like to tell a story of how one woman verbally demanded that her attacker stop his attack, while using only one other physical technique. Here's the story. An elderly woman in Chicago awoke one night to find an armed young man standing over her, wanting to rape her. He was undressed. As he climbed over her, she grabbed him by the testicles, refusing to let them go despite the man's requests and called the police. She held him by the testicles until the police arrived. We can safely assume that this woman was not as physically strong as her young attacker, but she combined verbal demands that he stop attacking her with one physical technique. In this way, she was able to stop an attack, and insured that he could not continue the attack. Fighting necessarily requires a combination of techniques: verbally demanding that an attacker stop attacking, yelling loudly to attract attention of any people in the area, striking the attacker to make him/her stop, and running to get away. All of these techniques combined increase women's ability to become a hard target and to stop an attack.

Teaching self-defense must be part of a larger political project. Self-defense cannot eradicate violence. Ending sexual violence requires a systemic response — one which dismantles the very foundations of patriarchy and its interconnections with other forms of domination. Self-defense cannot do this, in part, because it criticizes patriarchy on an everyday level, not in its constitution of the social order. Self-defense does, however, prepare women for violent situations which threaten them until patriarchy is permanently dismantled.

Self-defense education helps women demystify myths about sexual violence and to act against violence. How many times have we heard that a woman was asking for it, or that a woman was lucky that she survived an assault? When a women survives an assault, she wasn't lucky, she was strong. Self-defense teaches women to say "No!" to sexual violence in ways that cannot be ignored.

As I continue to teach self-defense, I see how politicized and controversial teaching women to stand up and fight for themselves can be. Self-defense teaching is an activist pedagogy. Students leave our self-defense classes with skills and information to change their perceptions of violence and their responses to it. Self-defense education has both immediate and long-term effects. I've spoken with women who took our self-defense courses a couple of years ago, and they all have stories about how they've used self-defense techniques when they were harassed in bars or grabbed by men wanting to take them somewhere. The tools we give women endure, because these women no longer accept violence in their lives. Our bodies remember what it feels like to be strong, to hit a padded target with power. Physical agency becomes political agency when women leave the classroom and disable their attackers.

Self-defense education demystifies violence against women as a necessary "given" — as something we should unquestioningly accept. In this way, self-defense is political on an everyday level. It gives women the ability to cope with certain experiences of patriarchal control. For example, women can learn how to respond to harassment, catcalls, unwanted advances of any kind, domestic arguments, being followed, and physical attacks. Self-defense gives women options for assessing a situation's level of threat and fighting back. Despite the systemic nature of violence against women, we must remember that people have always acted against domination. Self-defense education physically dismantles the violent oppression of women.

For Further Reading

  • Caignon, Denise and Gail Groves, eds. Her Wits About Her: Self-defense Success Stories by Women (Harper & Row, 1987).
  • Leung, Debbie. Self-Defense: The Womanly Art of Self-Care, Intuition and Choice (Tacoma, WA: R&M Press, 1991).
  • Medea, Andra and Kathleen Thompson. Against Rape: A Survival Manual for Women: How to Avoid Entrapment and How to Cope with Rape Physically and Emotionally (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1974).
  • Nelson, Joan M. Self-Defense: Steps to Success (Champaign, IL: Leisure Press, 1991).
  • Strain, Peg. A Window to Freedom: Basic Skills for Personal Safety (Open Way Safety Alliance, 1993).

I want to thank Jacq Madden, Katherine Coyle and Diane Long, without whom this paper would not have been possible, and Jonathan Sterne for his incisive comments and keen editing.

In addition to being a self-defense instructor, Carrie Rentschler is a graduate student in Speech Communication at the University of Illinois. Her current interests are in feminist political theory and the labor history of women service workers. Her email address is:

Copyright © 1995 by Carrie Rentschler. All rights reserved.